Inflammation of the brain during early development is strongly linked to autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and a new study points to specific brain cells that appear to be impacted to the greatest degree.

Seth Ament and colleagues studied postmortem brain tissues from 17 children who died when they were between one and five years of age. Eight of the children died as a result of conditions involving inflammation, and nine died as a result of accidents. The donors were similar in age, gender, ethnicity, and time since death, and none had been diagnosed with a neurological disorder prior to death.

brain scan, brain image, autism

The researchers used a technology called single-cell genomics to look at the effects of inflammation on the cellular level. They discovered that inflammation in early childhood prevents two specific types of neurons in the cerebellum, the Golgi and Purkinje neurons, from maturing fully. The cerebellum is a brain region involved in motor function and cognitive skills including language, social skills, and emotional regulation. Multiple studies have linked abnormalities of this region to ASD.

Ament says, “We looked at the cerebellum because it is one of the first brain regions to begin developing and one of the last to reach its maturity, but it remains understudied.” He adds, “The gene expression in the cerebella of children with inflammation were remarkably consistent.”

Ament notes, “During development, Purkinje neurons form synapses connecting the cerebellum to other brain regions involved in cognition or emotional control, while Golgi neurons coordinate communication between cells within the cerebellum. Disruption of either of these developmental processes could explain how inflammation contributes to conditions like ASD and schizophrenia.”

This article originally appeared in Autism Research Review International, Vol. 37, No.4, 2023

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